Mass protests due to take place in Swaziland this week were roundly thwarted by the government, which flooded the streets of the capital Mbabane with police and correctional services officers who stopped any crowds from gathering.
Trade union, student and pro-democracy groups had pledged to bring the country to a standstill on Thursday to mark the 39th anniversary of the 1973 decree that banned political parties and turned Swaziland into an absolute monarchy.
But the government struck back, using a court order to ban the protest on procedural grounds and then deregistered the newly formed Trade Union Congress of Swaziland, rendering any action planned by that group illegal.
It also filled the local media with threats and warnings about the illegality of the demonstrations and police chief Isaac Magagula urged members of the public to alert emergency services if they saw anyone marching.
From daybreak on Thursday, armed soldiers and police officers patrolled the streets across Mbabane and Manzini and several roadblocks were set up between the two cities to stop cars and taxis.
Union leaders had pledged that they would march anyway, but only a handful made it to Mbabane. Most were turned back at roadblocks or prevented from even leaving their homes and offices in Manzini.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian from within a police convoy that was escorting him out of Mbabane, congress first secretary general Mduduzi Gina said: “Perhaps it is a victory for the police this time, but it is only a short-term victory and it is very unfortunate for the people of Swaziland that this is how the government chooses to act.
“We will be planning more action and more activities and we appeal to the international community to see what is happening here and how the government treats people.”
Sabotaging the protest
Gina told of how unmarked police cars had barricaded his office, preventing him from being able to drive to Mbabane as planned to join Thursday’s protest by 9am.
He said he managed to slip out later in a different vehicle, but when he arrived in Mbabane at the pre-arranged meeting point he was again surrounded.
“There must have been about 300 police officers who were waiting for me in the car park in Mbabane,” he said.
“I tried to get out of my car and they just pushed me back inside and told me go to back to Manzini and that they would personally escort me, so I didn’t have much choice.”
Vincent Dlamini, secretary general of the Swaziland National Public Services and Allied Workers’ Union, a congress affiliate, said: “It was nearly impossible to get to Mbabane.
There were police everywhere. A few of us got close to the park, but then the police barricaded it, so we couldn’t get in and we were sent away.
“Even when we tried to greet each other, they stopped us. They didn’t want any groups forming, not even groups of two people.”
Dlamini said they had decided by lunchtime to call off the protest because their members had not been able to get to the starting point, but he denied it had been a failure.
“This is not a failure; it is proof of the brutality of the government and the kind of threats it issues to its own people,” he said, though he admitted that more work was needed to be able to mobilise greater numbers and circumvent the roadblocks.
Earlier in the day, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers’ secretary general, Muzi Mhlanga, and Sipho Kunene, the congress’s second deputy president, were detained by police.
They were taken to Mbabane police station, but released several hours later without charge.
On Wednesday, a crew from South Africa’s e.tv station was stopped at a roadblock as it entered Mbabane.
South African journos detained
Reporter Tumaole Mohlaoli and cameraman Meshack Dube are understood to have had their passports and equipment confiscated during their detention, before being released without charge later that evening.
The action was condemned by the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which made a public appeal to the Swazi government for media freedom.
The police’s spokesperson, Superintendent Wendy Hleta, denied that anyone had been detained.
“Foreign journalists, if they are in the country, need to be accredited. Everyone knows that,” she said.
The congress took shape late last year in a bid to bring unity to Swaziland’s vibrant but fractured union movement.
In a shock move last week, attorney general Majahenkaba Dlamini announced that the congress had been improperly registered and was no longer recognised by the government.
This week’s protests follow a rocky 18 months in Swaziland, which has experienced a wave of anti-government sentiment.